Monday, February 20, 2012

How to animate a corpse

One of the downsides of being a philosopher is that it makes it harder to suspend disbelief when watching horror flicks.  Plot holes become more glaring and speculations seem wilder when one’s business is looking for fallacies.  On the other hand, there is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it; hence there’s no one better placed to find a way to make even the most preposterous yarn seem at least remotely plausible.  A case in point, submitted for your approval: My take on a segment from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “Cool Air.”  (You can find it on Hulu and YouTube.)  Watching it for the first time recently, I was annoyed by what at first seemed to me an obviously nonsensical twist ending.  On further reflection, there is a way to make sense of it, if one makes the appropriate metaphysical assumptions.

The story, in the Night Gallery version, goes as follows.  (You might want to watch it before reading further, if you don’t want it spoiled -- though perhaps you’ll be more likely to enjoy it after seeing how it might be made sense of.)  In 1923, Dr. Juan Muñoz, an eccentric widowed physician, is visited in his apartment by Agatha Howard, the daughter of one of his former colleagues.  The apartment, as she soon discovers, is kept uncomfortably cold by a refrigerating machine.  Muñoz explains that he has a rare illness that makes it impossible for him to survive temperatures higher than 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  Agatha and Muñoz discuss the shared interest he and her late father had in conquering death.  While the former had approached the subject through cellular research, Muñoz’s own approach tended toward the “mystic,” seeking the means of keeping death at bay in an act of will.  

As their conversation continues, a mutual attraction develops, and since Muñoz cannot leave his apartment, Agatha begins to visit him regularly.  When a heat wave strikes, she receives from him a frantic call for help, and she arrives at his apartment to find him draped in a sheet, peering out through the folds.  Muñoz tells her that his refrigerating machine has broken down and must be repaired immediately if he is to survive.  She is able to get a repairman to look at it, but he tells Muñoz that a needed part cannot be acquired until the next day, given the lateness of the hour.  Agatha arranges to have hundreds of pounds of ice delivered to Muñoz’s apartment to keep him as cold as possible until the machine can be repaired.

The next morning, Agatha finds that Muñoz has only gotten worse and has locked himself in the bathroom, refusing to let her in.  His voice weak, he reveals that his late wife had killed herself because she couldn’t bear to live with a corpse -- for he had, he says, actually died ten years ago and has ever since been desperately trying to keep his dead body from deteriorating.  Agatha then hears him fall to the floor, forces the door open, and to her horror finds Muñoz’s motionless, rotted corpse staring up from the sheet.  In an epilogue, we see Muñoz’s headstone, on which is inscribed the following:

BORN 1887

DIED 1913

AND 1923

End of story.  Now, while it is of course in the nature of a fantasy tale to be fantastic, there should nevertheless be a logic to it -- a way of making the fantastic elements seem at least theoretically possible -- if the audience is to be able to suspend disbelief.  This could involve the kind of scientific speculation that makes a good science fiction story work, or the application of some metaphysical or theological theses that have been worked out with some rigor in other contexts.  (For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy, though obviously a work of imagination, is nevertheless grounded in a sophisticated system of metaphysics and theology -- a kind of hard SF for Thomists, you might say.  Daniel Dennett’s short story “Where Am I?” is a recent example of a tale grounded not in empirical science but nevertheless in serious -- though in my view erroneous -- metaphysical speculation.)  

At the very least, a good horror or fantasy tale should be grounded in folk ideas which, while perhaps having no serious philosophical articulation, have the weight of tradition or history behind them.  Hence we are willing to overlook the implausible or unexplained aspects of stories about vampires, werewolves, zombies, wizards, and the like, because while there seems little in the way of explanation of how such things could be possible (other than an appeal to magic, which is no explanation at all), the ideas are so longstanding that they derive a kind of honorary or “as if” plausibility merely from the fact of their familiarity.  

The odd thing about “Cool Air” is that its fantastic element doesn’t obviously derive from any of these sources.  To be sure, Lovecraft’s original story indicates a little more clearly that Muñoz’s preservation after death was made possible through a mixture of scientific and occult means, but these are kept extremely vague.  Muñoz is not portrayed in either version as having been revivified through electricity (as in Frankenstein) or through witchcraft (as with zombies).  More to the point, he doesn’t act like an ambulant corpse at all, but rather like a man whose body is decaying but still alive.  What is never made clear is what his “death” years earlier could have amounted to if his consciousness and bodily activity carried on uninterrupted.   Was it a matter of some of his crucial tissues and organs dying but the whole organism nevertheless carrying on through an act of will?  That can’t be right, because it wouldn’t really be death but merely a bizarre illness, and the punch of the story depends on our finding out that Muñoz is really a corpse.  But if he really had literally died years before -- the entire organism perishing, not just some organs -- how can it be that Muñoz carries on for years afterward?  It would be one thing to say that he was gone, but that his body was kept animated through bizarre means, as with a zombie or Frankenstein monster.  But the story has it that Muñoz himself carries on, desperately trying to keep his body from rotting even though he had died.  And that doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Or at least it doesn’t, given certain metaphysical assumptions, particularly the ones I would bring to bring to bear.  On an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic view of human nature, when the body dies, the person dies.  A-T regards the soul as the form of the living body, the principle which is responsible for all of its characteristic activities, from the lowest vegetative functions to the highest, intellectual ones.  For a human being to die is just for the matter of his body to lose this form or soul.  The soul carries on, but not as a complete substance, and thus not as the complete person.  More to the point, the body does not carry on at all; its matter takes on different forms -- of bone, meat, and the like, and of the chemicals that existed virtually in the body while it was alive.  Certainly it loses the capacity to carry out the functions characteristic of human life -- walking about, engaging in intelligent conversation, etc.  If what seemed to be a corpse was carrying out these activities, it would have to have the form of a thing capable of doing so, and thus would have a human soul and not really be a corpse at all.  Hence, from an A-T point of view, the basic premise of “Cool Air” makes no sense.  Muñoz is either dead or he isn’t.  If he is, then there can be no question of him still walking around in his body, carrying out a conversation, etc.  And if he is doing these things, then he isn’t really dead.  Perhaps he had died and then been resurrected -- his soul coming once again to inform the matter of his body -- only with a body that immediately began to degenerate.  But that’s not the same as being dead.  

Hence my initial reaction to the story.  Nor do I think that reaction is merely philosophically motivated.  The A-T view regards itself as a theoretical articulation of common sense, and I think it pretty clearly tracks common sense in this case.  Even apart from the metaphysical considerations, one wants to say at the end of the story:  “Huh?  If he really, literally died ten years ago, how has he been walking around and doing all this other stuff, uninterrupted, since then?”

But suppose instead that we took a Cartesian view of human nature.  On that sort of view, soul and body are not two aspects of one substance, but rather two complete stand-alone substances in their own right.  In particular, the soul is not the form of the body, and soul and body are thus not related (as they are for A-T) as formal cause and material cause respectively.  The soul (or res cogitans -- a “thing that thinks,” as Descartes reconceived it) is rather an eccentric kind of efficient cause, a “ghost in the machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously put it.  And the body is indeed a kind of machine on this view, capable in principle of behaving just as we are used to seeing it behave, but without any conscious or intellectual activity guiding it.  (This is the source of the modern idea of a “zombie,” in the philosophical sense of that term, viz. a creature that is physically and behaviorally identical to a normal human being but is devoid of consciousness.)  The death of the body is thus on the Cartesian view not the loss of a certain kind of form, but rather a kind of mechanical breakdown.  Life and death thus have no essential connection to the presence or absence of the soul, because the soul is not conceived of in the first place as that which gives the body its distinctively organic characteristics.  

Now the Cartesian view notoriously faces the “interaction problem,” the puzzle of explaining how a material substance (understood, for the Cartesian, as a substance whose essence is to be extended in space) and a res cogitans or thinking substance (understood as a substance whose essence is thought and nothing but thought, and is thus immaterial or non-extended) can get in any sort of efficient-causal contact.  But however this is supposed to work, the causal relationship between the two turns out to be no more special then the causal relationship a res cogitans might have to any other material substance.  Soul and body are not related, as they are for A-T, as form and matter -- two aspects of one thing, where for the soul to inform a body just is for that body to be alive.  Think instead of a spirit possessing some inanimate object -- a ghost or demon causing a record player or television to switch on, or objects to move through the air as in movies like Poltergeist -- and you’ve got a model for how soul and body are related on the Cartesian view.  Just as the poltergeist is a completely distinct thing from a physical object that it “haunts” or moves about, so too are a res cogitans and the body it is associated with completely independent.  The record player a poltergeist flips on would have been just as it is even if the poltergeist had never done so, and the poltergeist could have flipped on something else instead.  And the body a Cartesian res cogitans controls would have been exactly as it is even if it had been controlled instead by another res cogitans or by no res cogitans at all; while the res cogitans in turn could instead have controlled some other body, or some other kind of physical object altogether -- a record player, or even a corpse.

And that brings us back to “Cool Air.”  If we take a Cartesian approach to human nature, then the story becomes intelligible.  Muñoz’s death ten years before the story begins was the death of his body, and this involved, not the body’s loss of a certain kind of form (as it would on the A-T view) but rather a kind of mechanical breakdown.  The death of the body would therefore not entail (as it would on the A-T view, where the soul is just the form of the body) that the soul, and therefore the person, was no longer present.  Rather, we can imagine that Muñoz’s res cogitans continued to interact with his corpse just as it had been interacting with his body -- somehow pushing about bits of dead flesh just as it had previously been pushing about living flesh, or as a ghost or demon might push about the physical objects it moves around the room it is haunting.  And just as a ghost or a demon’s possession of the corpse of a dog wouldn’t by itself keep that corpse from rotting, neither did Muñoz’s continued interaction with his now dead body keep it from rotting -- which is why he needed to keep it cold for as long as he could.  For a soul in the A-T sense to animate a corpse would, as I have indicated, just be for that body to be resurrected or brought back to life.  That a Cartesian res cogitans is interacting with a corpse doesn’t by itself accomplish that.  But it does suffice to animate it in the looser sense of causing it to move about, to speak, and so forth.  And that, it seems to me, is how we have to imagine Muñoz’s relation to his dead body if we are to make sense of the story.

Of course, as an A-T philosopher, I reject the Cartesian position.  Indeed, for reasons set out in The Last Superstition, I regard it as philosophically disastrous.  But let’s give it its due -- it comes in pretty handy when one is trying to relax, suspend disbelief, and enjoy an episode of Night Gallery.  

(I spell out and defend the A-T hylemorphic view of human nature in chapter 8 of Philosophy of Mind and, more thoroughly, in chapter 4 of Aquinas.  Earlier posts on A-T hylemorphism, Cartesian dualism, the interaction problem, and related matters can be found here.  Apart from Night Gallery, Rod Serling is, of course, best known as the man behind The Twilight Zone, on which I’ve had occasion to comment before, here and here.)

59 comments:

Crude said...

You seem like a guy who's at least reasonably well-versed in sci-fi and fantasy. Sometime, if you get the urge, I'd like to see you do a write-up on sci-fi or fantasy which you think reflects well on either philosophy, or religious people (Catholics particularly) in general.

For me, Hellboy remains one of the few comics that depicts the Catholic Church in an actual positive light here and there. Maybe even in large part.

Maolsheachlann said...

As long as there is no logical impossibility, scientific impossibility, or lack of any hint of a scientific explanation, never bothers me one bit in stories. You can hold the dilithium crystals, as far as I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

Strong dislike of Cartesianism noted. But at least the Cartesian soul, via efficient causation, affords us a coherent glimpse at how libertarian freedom (which is a precondition for moral responsibility, which in turn is a precondition for Christianity) could be a reality. How does the Thomistic soul, via formal and final causation, allow for the possibility of such freedom?

Even Bill Vallicella, who seems to be a classical theist, thinks that we interfere with the laws of nature:

http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/laws-of-nature/

"Whether or or not God ever intervenes in the physical world, I do it all the time. It's called mental causation. That it occurs is a plain fact; that mental causes are not identical to physical causes is not a plain fact, but very persuasively arguable, pace Jaegwon Kim. So if a frail reed such as the Maverick Philosopher can bring about the suspension of causal closure, then God should be able to pull it off as well."

Corrigan1 said...

Personally, I never read horror stories or watch horror movies, or any kind of fantasy fiction. I simply switch off when they're mooted, which can be problematical, since my beloved is a big fan. Paradoxically, she is also as near to being a non-believer as it is possible to be without actually turning out the light as you leave, and she really only doesn't declare for atheism out of defference to me.

It's curious, is it not, how the advance in secularism has brought with it a seeming torrent of fantasy/horror/vampire/werewolf stuff. I suppose the old belief that a good dose of Christianity (NOT secularism or atheism) was the cure for superstition is actually true. Whatever else I've had in my upbringing, I had a good dose of Christianity, straight from Rome, 100 proof. The real stuff.

The Deuce said...

Hi Ed:

Think instead of a spirit possessing some inanimate object -- a ghost or demon causing a record player or television to switch on, or objects to move through the air as in movies like Poltergeist -- and you’ve got a model for how soul and body are related on the Cartesian view.

This reminds me of something I've wondered about occasionally. Namely, how is demon possession conceived of in the A-T view? As in, what's supposed to be happening? Obviously, the demon (which is purely a form, as I recall) isn't the form of the human body it inhabits, and it isn't simply controlling the body in a ghost-in-the-machine Cartesian manner, so what does its control of a person consist of? Did Aquinas ever write on this topic?

James said...

Professional philosophers must live up to a reputation for superfluous ratiocination, I suppose. ;) But I suspect that Cool Air doesn’t make sense because you allow your background knowledge to influence what you take to be authorial intention.

Muñoz’s “un-death” was merely the case of a drastic medical intervention, after which his body lost the ability to maintain and repair itself. He would have died without that intervention, and much of his body carried on as if it had died, so to those not inclined to deeper analysis it makes sense to say that he had died but lived on nevertheless.

I don’t think a sensible interpretation requires a ghost-in-the-machine.

James said...

(I’ll note that I haven’t seen any filmed adaptation, but have only read Lovecraft’s story. I may be missing something.)

James said...

@Corrigan1:

“I suppose the old belief that a good dose of Christianity (NOT secularism or atheism) was the cure for superstition is actually true.”

I don’t think atheism is a cure for superstition, but I don’t think (if I’m interpreting your comment correctly) that we can say that Christianity offers such cures either. There are and have been a great many Christian fantasists, and Christian lovers of fantasy, science fiction, and even horror are pretty durn common.

Heck, it’s no secret that the archetypal fantasy author — Tolkien — was thoroughly Christian, as was CS Lewis. As for vampires and werewolves, well, there’s Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight series … yeah, she’s mormon, but I take that to be closer to Christianity than atheism.

TimLambert said...

Hey Doc Feser,
I think we had this discussion awhile back.... but did you watch the horror film "Session 9"?
It's incredible.

Anonymous said...

Lovecraft and Serling are both brilliant.

Crude,

I, obvioulsy, am not Feser, and I don't know exactly what you mean by "reflects well," but much of Lovecraft's work is undergirded by philosophy. Albeit, it is a weird mix of Schopenhaurian, Nietzschean, and all around pessimistic philosophy. If you are interested, the Silver Key begins with 4 or 5 page philosophical commentary on modern life before he gets to the story. And as far as I read that story, it is a fictional/literary account of Nietzsche's eternal return.

Also, if you are looking for catholic fantasy/sci-fi, you can't go wrong with Lewis' Narnia books or his spcae trilogy, although I am not certain that the latter has Christian elements.

TimLambert said...

James said:

"Muñoz’s “un-death” was merely the case of a drastic medical intervention, after which his body lost the ability to maintain and repair itself. He would have died without that intervention, and much of his body carried on as if it had died, so to those not inclined to deeper analysis it makes sense to say that he had died but lived on nevertheless."

What you're saying goes against what the story actually says. Because in your view he never was dead. Now, you can dress it up and say "well, yes, he was.... his body was shutting down and via some means it was being prevented from happening".... I could only counter that that would go for anyone then. You could simply say "well, everyone is dead.... there's just something currently holding it off. Whether youth, antibiotics, good diet...".

James said...

@TimLambert:

“Now, you can dress it up and say ‘well, yes, he was.... his body was shutting down and via some means it was being prevented from happening’.... I could only counter that that would go for anyone then.”

Well, I don’t think that’s really true. The human body does an extremely complex job maintaining itself, repairing damage, fighting off foreign invasion. If somehow that facility became so corrupted that a person’s body became indistinguishable from an ambulatory corpse, then I think it’s not too much a stretch to call that person “dead” but alive — certainly deader than you or I. At the very least it’s not nonsense.

You might say that such a person isn’t really dead, and of course you’re right. But the analogy is clear, and I daresay most people would ultimately agree but call it nitpicking.

Nick Wilson said...

I think demon possesion is curious and I would like to know what Aquinas thought of it as well.

Anyways, my main concern is the hylemorphic understanding of a "brain transplant." Or maybe even brain-in-a-vat experiments? Suppose that my brain could be successfully transplated into someone else's body, who would that body and my brain be? I don't see how it could be me, but I don't see how it could be that other person either. I think this becomes especially confusing on hylemorphism, at least for me anyways. If anyone has a solution, I'd be glad to hear it.

TimLambert said...

Hi James,

I'm still having a problem with that distinction because i don't see it being any different than saying any living person is technically dead because that's where they are headed.

Regardless if the thing preventing an earlier death would be youth, medical intervention, a good diet, exercise.

You could just as likely say a person born without a thymus gland is technically dead because in the absence of a battery of interventions that person would be dead in short order of time. However, tell a person with no immune system that they're pretty much already dead and I'd wager they'd be quick to disagree with you.

At any moment any number of cells in a person's body are dying via aptosis and/or necrosis; just not on as grand a scale when the heart and brain stop functioning. But we wouldn't say that the person is dead.

Anonymous said...

Is this too cheeky a question? A Christian Philosopher should not lie. He should not pretend that Santa exists.
But he can watch horror films that have been influenced by HP Lovecraft?

OK, I'm pulling your leg a little here. I have a substantial question, though.... has Christian philosophy investigated what a Christian can, and cannot, be entertained by?

GV

Daniel Smith said...

I second (third) the requests for thoughts on demon possession.

I remember a talk I had a long time ago with some Jehovah's Witnesses who insisted that it was impossible for the Holy Spirit (who they reject as a person) to live in a physical body. "A person can't live in another person's body" they said. I brought up demon possession and asked if that wasn't an example of one person living in the body of another. They did not answer, but I often wondered about how they would explain that in their theology.

The whole subject of demon possession is often neglected - in spite of its extensive biblical examples. I'd really like to hear more on the subject - especially from the Thomist perspective.

Pattsce said...

Anonymous,

Pornography. And Nicki Minaj.

TheOFloinn said...

@Nick
But why would a brain transplant matter any more than a heart or kidney transplant? Organisms use organs, not vice versa.

Brain ≠ soul or mind.

Nick Wilson said...

TheOFloinn,

I know that the brain does not equal the soul or mind, and at the same time, I don't think it's necessarily as simple as a kidney or heart transplant. The brain controls our bodily functions and if I'm not mistaken, our mental images and whatnot are generated by our brains on the hylemorphic view. I just wonder what hylemorphism, in theory, would have to say about some sort of brain transplant if it were medically possible? I think this sort of question is interesting on any view, hylemorphic or otherwise.

Michele Arpaia said...

Dear Feser,
like you I would not be able to conceive a person as made of two separate entities. A fortiori, I believe that the natural process to procreate is an essential ingredient in the definition of a person. In other words, I tend to believe that if we disconnect the natural process of procreation from the actual procreation, we may end up with a "different" being. Let us assume at least that in extreme cases, this holds true (e.g. creation of "human being" in laboratories). Wouldn't this entail - at least theoretically - a human body without form/soul?

Will said...

In an A-T view surely ambient-temperature people who walk and talk aren't "dead," but "dead" people having dinner dates is creepy and weird, so I don't blame the producers for using the term. I don't think the episode requires a mechanistic view of the body; we can just recognize the terms are being used loosely -- as the writers of the episode showed they did, in putting _two_ death dates on the tombstone.

But _Freaky Friday_ -- yeah.

TheOFloinn said...

I can claim no expertise, but I would suppose that a still living person who somehow received a brain transplant would use the "new" brain in much the same manner as the old. There may be some period of adjustment to the "size and shape", much as one receiving a new hand may need to adjust to the difference in geometry. But if we suppose that neural patterns are created by thoughts and not vice versa, it's just a matter of using a different set of neurons.

James said...

@TimLambert:

“I'm still having a problem with that distinction because i don't see it being any different than saying any living person is technically dead because that's where they are headed.”

Technically I think you’re correct; someone whose body ceased functioning in the way I described wouldn’t be dead. I’m not arguing that there’s some cutoff level of functioning after which one is dead-yet-living, such that Muñoz would qualify but (say) someone with AIDS would not.

But as a fuzzy description of someone who very strongly resembles a corpse — much more strongly than a regular person and even more strongly than someone with a late-term immune deficiency impairment? Someone who by all that we know of medical science should genuinely be dead, and who rapidly decomposes as if so? I don’t think calling them “dead”-with-scare-quotes is too silly.

YMMV!

Pattsce said...

TheOFloinn,

You kind of just blew my mind (har har) with the simplicity of that explanation. It really got me thinking too. It's amazing how hard it is for me not to think in strict Cartesian soul/body terms even though I put little stock in Descartes' arguments.

Dr. Feser,

Do you think you might be able to do a post devoted to the idea of brain transplants? I don't think you have in the past, and I can't remember if you covered it under hylemorphic dualist terms in your Philosophy of Mind.

If it has been covered, someone please point in me in the right direction.

Also, dang, these captchas became so hard to read.

Martin S. said...

hylemorphism: heart transplant inherited memories and change of personality http://theophanes.hubpages.com/hub/Cellular-Memories-in-Organ-Transplant-Recipients

dguller said...

TOF:

But if we suppose that neural patterns are created by thoughts and not vice versa, it's just a matter of using a different set of neurons.

If neural patterns do not create thoughts, then how does neural damage result in dysfunctional thinking? Is the immaterial intellect fully intact, but simply unable to use a damaged brain in order to transition the thoughts from the immaterial to the material world? And if that is so, then how exactly does this differ from substance dualism? It seems that on this account, one loses all the benefits of a hylemorphic theory of mind that is capable of avoiding all the dilemmas of dualism.

TheOFloinn said...

If neural patterns do not create thoughts, then how does neural damage result in dysfunctional thinking?

In the same way that leg damage results in dysfunctional dancing, I suppose.

dguller said...

TOF:

In the same way that leg damage results in dysfunctional dancing, I suppose.

But there is a mind willing the leg to dance, and the damaged leg is simply unable to complete the command. When it comes to the mind and brain, is there an immaterial mind using the brain as a tool to express its thoughts? And if so, then how is this any different from substance dualism, especially if the immaterial mind can exist beyond the death of the brain?

Nick Wilson said...

I think Dr. Feser talks about people in vegatative states in the Psychology chapter in Aquinas, if I'm not mistaken.

That is, however, different from a brain transplant because the person with brain damage is only being prevented from working to their full capacity, and both body and soul still exist. "what is essential to a thing remains essential to it even if it is somehow prevented from manifesting itself"

If my brain were transplanted, I would be dead and the unity of matter and form that constitute me would be corrupted. But for the other person, would they simply inherit the material aspect of a certain part of me present in the brain?

Tony said...

Sorry, but I cannot suspend my disbelief even in the Cartesian version of what's back of Cool Air. It's just too ridiculous: a body at 55 degrees decomposes into mold and sludge, just a wee bit slower than at 70 degrees: maybe 4 weeks instead of 2 weeks for the majority of the body to be pure goo. Even at 33 degrees, you don't get any 10 years out of it, you might get a few months. Think of a roast left in your frig for 3 months. Not pretty.

Elizabeth said...

Interesting human biodiversity reading list:

http://www.humanbiologicaldiversity.com/


--

Alex said...

The people who are arguing that Munoz was simply using the word "dead" in a colloquial way - i.e., the way a living person who has an incurable fatal disease might say that he's already dead - are simply off base here.

The story's plot makes it clear that we are intended to view Munoz as actually having died ten years earlier. A person who has an incurable fatal disease who needs good air conditioning to survive does not even need very serious medical interventions to survive. The story simply wouldn't be a horror story at all if Munoz is simply using "dead" in this colloquial sense.

Instead, the story then would be some kind of tragic story - the (only true) death scene of Dr. Munoz because his technology failed to be repaired. But that's clearly not the intent of Lovecraft (or Sterling) at all - they both intended the story to be horrific and not particularly tragic. That the story was initially published in a SF/fantasy/horror magazine indicates the readers of the time also were intended to read the story as horrific and not tragic.

James said...

I don’t suppose that Lovecraft’s original intention in writing Cool Air is really worth spending a great deal of time arguing about, but never mind all of that practical stuff — I’m putting off writing a dissertation.

@Alex:

“That the story was initially published in a SF/fantasy/horror magazine indicates the readers of the time also were intended to read the story as horrific and not tragic.”

I reject three elements that I see in your argument: that Muñoz’s story was not meant to carry any sort of tragic element; that being in any way tragic precludes being predominantly horror; and that a tragic story of the kind described would not have seemed both horrific and fantastic to 1920s readers. Muñoz averted imminent death by becoming nearly indistinguishable to a walking corpse, and must therefore live in increasingly low temperatures to keep from rotting — in need of human companionship but desperately searching for some way to bring temperatures down further.

This is fantastic, a state of affairs unachievable then or now; it is horrific, because Muñoz’s unnatural method of cheating death leads to his literal rotting away; it is tragic, because he allows his obsession to take him into a terrible state. Even what Muñoz writes at the end sounds to me not like literal death but keeping his failing body going:

“I fancy you know — what I said about the will and the nerves and the preserved body after the organs ceased to work. It was good theory, but couldn’t keep up indefinitely. There was a gradual deterioration I had not foreseen.”

This is one of Lovecraft’s least horrific stories, frankly. No eldritch horrors poking through the fabric of reality to drive anyone insane. Just a guy who took his scientific genius and created a bit of a monster out of himself. Whether you agree with me here, I still don’t think a sensible interpretation requires a commitment to Cartesian dualism.

Ray Ingles said...

Corrigan1 - "since my beloved is a big fan [of fantasy/horror]. Paradoxically, she is also... near to being a non-believer"

Why would that be a 'paradox'? She doesn't actually believe in zombies and vampires, right?

Ray Ingles said...

TheOFloinn - There's plenty of evidence that (at least a whole lot of) memories are stored in the brain. Seems a brain transplant would at least result in more psychological effects than a heart or kidney transplant...

TimLambert said...

Ray,
I don't think it's too far of a stretch of imagination to get Corrigan's point.

I would venture that those who are very much into horror/fantasy are so because of the mystery of it all. They're able to prime their minds to be receptive to the possibility of this stuff happening. If not, then they probably wouldn't find it scary at all.

TheOFloinn said...

Soitenly, as Curley would say. Sensation is correlated there, memories, etc. That is why I compared changing brains to changing hands. You would have to get used to a different reach, grasp, etc., and there may be things that you did with your old hand that you could not do with the new one.

Ray Ingles said...

TimLambert - A fascination with 'what if?' scenarios is not incompatible with a thoroughgoing insistence on determining 'what really is'. Hence my question about 'paradox'.

From Spider Robinson's book "Time Pressure": "I had read science fiction since I had been old enough to read, attracted by that sense of wonder that they talk about- and read enough of it to have my sense of wonder gently abraded away over the years... Rearranging his entire personal universe in the light of startlingly new data is what [a longtime reader of sf] does for fun... Confronted with a nominally supernatural occurence, a normal person will first freeze in shock, then back away in fear. An sf reader will pause cautiously, then move closer. The normal person will hastily review a checklist of escape hatches- "I am drunk"; "I am dreaming"; "I have been drugged"; and so forth- hoping to find one which applies. The sf reader will check the same list- hoping to come up empty. But meanwhile he'll already have begun analyzing this new puzzle-piece which the game of life has offered him. What is it good for? What are its limitations? Where does it pinch? The thing he will be most afraid of is appearing stupid in retrospect."

Anonymous said...

@ Ray Ingles:

"There's plenty of evidence that (at least a whole lot of) memories are stored in the brain."

What do you mean exactly by "stored in the brain"?

Wouldn't one need a second memory to remember what memories and where in the brain are they stored? Would such a memory (of memories) need to be stored too? In the brain? Wouldn´t that necessitate having yet another, third, memory to keep the track of the second one? And so on...

T.H.

DNW said...

"This is one of Lovecraft’s least horrific stories, frankly. No eldritch horrors poking through the fabric of reality to drive anyone insane. Just a guy who took his scientific genius and created a bit of a monster out of himself. Whether you agree with me here, I still don’t think a sensible interpretation requires a commitment to Cartesian dualism.

February 22, 2012 10:40 AM"


I'm going to have to take some time out in order to get through a couple of Lovecraft stories. My impression though, is that they promise more in the way of an encounter with the uncanny, than they actually deliver in the way of intellectual shivers.

This puts me in mind of a book a professor of mine in analytic philosophy suggested I read many years ago. It was Colin Wilson's "The Mind Parasites".

Because I had been previously studying phenomenology, [another kind of venture that seemed to promise worldview shattering breakthroughs in perspective ... if only the program could be worked out LOL] I was all up for it, and anticipating one hell of an adventure in philosophical novelization.

The only thing shattered, was my expectation. The only thing philosophical, were the references to phenomenology, and the only things phenomenological were the jargon phrases trotted out for eerie atmosphere.

Whenever I reflect back on it now, I am reminded of that writing class scene from the movie, "Throw Momma from the Train"

'He pulled on the transcendental reduction thingee ...'

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a17ul-afTCE

Richard said...

While we are on a somewhat outre subject, I was wondering, how well can A-T metaphysics accomodate supposedley psychic phenomena such as, say, psychokinesis?

Mr. Green said...

These comic-book stories generally seem to work with Cartesian-type souls, although it still doesn't make a lot of sense to me. If being alive just means that the soul is "in" (or is operating) the body, and when the soul is removed, you're left with a corpse, then if the doctor's soul was operating his body, he was still alive. The original story does say that "will and consciousness are stronger than organic life itself" so we're supposed to understand some definition of life that is bodily or "organic" apart from… mental? Are we supposed to accept that human beings live a "double life", of body and mind?

There is one thing that makes more sense in the written story, I think: it ends, "for you see I died that time eighteen years ago" — but it doesn't say Munoz died again. If you suppose that he had died previously, and his soul kept pushing his corpse around until it fell apart, then it makes a bit more sense. It wasn't that he "died" again, but that his body decayed so badly that there was eventually nothing left of it to manipulate. (But I guess Serling couldn't resist the punchline of "died 1913 and 1923".)


The Deuce: Obviously, the demon (which is purely a form, as I recall) isn't the form of the human body it inhabits, and it isn't simply controlling the body in a ghost-in-the-machine Cartesian manner, so what does its control of a person consist of?

I don't know what Aquinas specifically said about possession, but the general view would be that the demon is simply pushing the possessed person's body around, like grabbing someone's arm and moving it. More of a ghost-outside-the-machine scenario.

Mr. Green said...

Nick Wilson: Suppose that my brain could be successfully transplanted into someone else's body, who would that body and my brain be? I don't see how it could be me, but I don't see how it could be that other person either.

I don't think it's problematic to imagine getting hypnotised and (false) memories implanted in your mind; they could even be memories from someone else's life. And a heart transplant is similarly uncontroversial. So a brain transplant would be like both: you would still be you, even if you ended up with different memories, or personality traits, etc. So at least in principle, there's nothing impossible about a brain transplant in A-T terms.

Of course, the interesting thing is to ask exactly what is getting transplanted to whom: is it really you who ends up with a new brain, or the other person who ends up with a whole new body? Is the brain-transplant really just an everything-but-the-brain transplant in reverse? Instinctively, I think we tend to feel that the whole body "outweighs" the brain, but then again, the brain is a mighty important organ compared to all the rest. Could you control which person ends up alive by transplanting all the body parts one by one, or in a certain order? I don't think we could ever tell (empirically) — either possibility is consistent with A-T, it just depends how God has made the rules.


T.H.: Wouldn't one need a second memory to remember what memories and where in the brain are they stored? Would such a memory (of memories) need to be stored too? In the brain? Wouldn´t that necessitate having yet another, third, memory to keep the track of the second one? And so on…

No; for one thing, the memory that "X is stored in location Y" could be stored in the same memory (that's how computers do it, after all; or people, when using mnemonic tricks like a "memory palace"). But we don't access memories by having our souls remember where to look up memories in our soul either, or whatever other way you might be supposing it to be laid out. For A-T, the soul and body are akin to software running on hardware: memories are stored in the brain comparably to how data is "stored in" a RAM chip. Messing with the hardware is going to have a drastic effect on the functioning of the software, and likewise replacing one organ with a different one (such as a brain with different pathways corresponding to memories, traits, etc.) will have a drastic effect on the person.

James said...

@DNW:

“I'm going to have to take some time out in order to get through a couple of Lovecraft stories. My impression though, is that they promise more in the way of an encounter with the uncanny, than they actually deliver in the way of intellectual shivers.”

Don’t be too eager to read Lovecraft, whose reputation as a writer far exceeds (I must admit) his true capacity for it. If feeling generous I’d call his style meandering with a thesaurus — using silly and ill-fitting words to make a big deal out of the protagonist’s fright or disgust without, you know, showing us why we should feel the same. But you’re right on both counts, the stories are usually intended to be frightening and uncanny. A major theme is that of someone glimpsing into such cosmically horrific/bizarre stuff that he cannot remain sane. (Rinse, repeat.)

I was a big fan as a teenager so I keep a certain fondness for Lovecraft. But much like my experience with Tolkien, I’ve come to realize over the years that he simply wasn’t a very good writer. I’d take (say) Neil Gaiman over Lovecraft any day (or Gene Wolfe over Tolkien).

TheOFloinn said...

Regarding "stored" memories. These are not "stored" as in a computer. When a file is "called up" from computer "memory" it becomes present. That is, the data are now. Otherwise, the data are not.

Human memories are recalled precisely as past. When we remember seeing a birthday cake, the sight of that birthday cake does not suddenly become present in real time. We remember the cakey smell; we do not "re-smell" it.

Computer "memory" is much more like retrieving a folder from a file cabinet. The old information becomes available once more in the present, as present.

There's probably a better way of explaining the difference.

The Deuce said...

Hi TOF,

I definitely put myself in the Thomist camp, but I have to say that the question of brain transplants is pretty confusing to me.

In brain-in-a-vat thought experiments, people (including Thomists, I believe) tend to take it for granted that your brain is still you, but you seem to be suggesting that if you were to take my brain-in-a-vat and put it in your body, the brain would cease to be an (incomplete) me, and that the result would be you with a new brain (as opposed to me with a new rest of my body).

I guess the question may come down to the intellect, that necessarily immaterial aspect of us that maintains our existence and identity after death. Would the resulting body have your intellect or my intellect? If your intellect, would you have my memories? And if my memories, when you recalled them would you think of them as having happened to yourself, or to me?

Of course, all this assumes that brain-in-a-vat/brain-transplant thought experiments aren't metaphysically dubious to start with, and that it's even hypothetically possible for such a thing to happen without you being dead.

James said...

If a brain-in-a-vat scenario is potentially dubious, what about sorites story? Replace my leg with a mechanical leg and I’m still me; replace all of my limbs with mechanical versions and I’m still me; and I can only assume that if you further replaced my heart with a pumping device, my lungs with a breathing apparatus, my kidneys with a miniature dialysis machine, etc., I’d remain me. None of that seems impossible in principle (although I’d wager we won’t get to a point like that anytime soon).

It even seems like you could replace everything from my neck down with a robot body and I’d still feel like me, although of course in some weird (arguably corrupt, arguably awesome) form. What about my face — my jaw, my teeth? My tongue? My ears? My eyes with video cameras?

During what part of the upgrade — er, replacement — process would I no longer be me?

Nick Wilson said...

James,

I think it would just be a change in the material that constitutes you. You remain you as long as the composite of matter and form that constitutes you is not corrupted. I'm just not sure at what point, like you brought up, that would happen. If you transplanted all of my organs, for example, into someones else's body over a period of time, I don't think they would ever become me, or vice versa, after a certain point, but I don't really know why. I'm guessing it has something to do with the relationship between form and matter, but I'm not sure..

Anonymous said...

Mr Green:

I am not really concerned with where the memories are stored. In fact I don't think they are "stored" anywhere.
I am only pointing out that if the memory is at all stored (in the brain or anywhere else) it would take even more, certainly not less, memory to remember it. A memory which needs to be as detailed as every detail of the original memory.
So how a person accesses it without involving at least equally detailed memory.

Now, RAM or ROM don’t store memory, but data and algorithms. Very much like bookshelf that contains millions of letters, which would be totally meaningless without intelligence whose basic function is remembering..

“For A-T, the soul and body” are emphatically NOT “akin to software running on hardware” as you think. You can maybe ascribe that conception to Descartes, but Aquinas???

Also, please consider cases of people who are born virtually without brain, yet live perfectly normal life, some pursuing and succeeding in the career of mathematician. Now where do they store their “software”, as you call it?

T.H.

Daniel Smith said...

Mr. Green: I don't know what Aquinas specifically said about possession, but the general view would be that the demon is simply pushing the possessed person's body around, like grabbing someone's arm and moving it. More of a ghost-outside-the-machine scenario.

That's certainly not the biblical perspective. The gospels are replete with examples where demons "come out of" people. In fact Jesus used the term "house" as an analogy for the human body and demon possession:

"When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first."

There is nothing in scripture that I'm aware of that supports the "ghost-outside-the-machine" scenario. I'm curious where you got the idea that that is "the general view"?

Mr. Green said...

The OFloinn: Human memories are recalled precisely as past. When we remember seeing a birthday cake, the sight of that birthday cake does not suddenly become present in real time.

Really? That's always how re-membering (or re-calling or re-collecting) seemed to happen to me. Certainly, memories are weaker than the original experience, and are overlaid with any present sensations. Recalling it as past is an additional bit of information that comes along with the memory. (That's how we can have memories of remembering something.) Do you think that memory couldn't work like a built-in diary, or that it could but happens not to?


The Deuce: In brain-in-a-vat thought experiments, people (including Thomists, I believe) tend to take it for granted that your brain is still you

In a scenario where no one else is involved, presumably the envatted brain must be you if it is still alive. When you swap bits of whole bodies back and forth, I don't think there's any way to know who's who. That is, the physical or biological facts on their own cannot identify the intellectual soul, so God could have set up the rules so that when switching brains, the person goes along with the brain, or He could have made it so that the person goes with the rest of the body. I think either way is metaphysically possible.

...and that it's even hypothetically possible for such a thing to happen without you being dead.

Yes… I wouldn't be at all surprised if brain-transplanting turned out to be impossible for any technology given the laws of physics and biology, so that in practice the question is moot.


T.H.: I am only pointing out that if the memory is at all stored (in the brain or anywhere else) it would take even more, certainly not less, memory to remember it. A memory which needs to be as detailed as every detail of the original memory.

I don't see why. It doesn't take instructions as complex as Hamlet to find the book on a shelf at the library. It may not even take any "stored" instructions at all — once you've found Macbeth, you can find Hamlet just by looking nearby. Indeed, we do sometimes "find" memories by remembering some other, related memory first.

Very much like bookshelf that contains millions of letters, which would be totally meaningless without intelligence whose basic function is remembering.

Of course. Technically, we might say a "memory" stored in your brain is just "data" until you actually bring it to your mind; but there's no reason that our past experiences cannot be stored physically in the brain as much as in a diary; your brain is just more convenient.

“For A-T, the soul and body” are emphatically NOT “akin to software running on hardware” as you think.

Sure they are, and more so than anything Cartesian. Software is formal, and software running on a machine determines its "shape" — if the matter (including a lot of electrons) were arranged differently, you would have a different machine. (Though perhaps a very similar one, running a different program.) Obviously there are lots of differences too, but I only meant the relationship between form and matter.

Also, please consider cases of people who are born virtually without brain, yet live perfectly normal life, some pursuing and succeeding in the career of mathematician. Now where do they store their “software”, as you call it?

You don't "store" software; you store things, which can be informed with different software patterns. In the analogy to a human being, your soul is not "stored" anywhere either; it, plus some matter, makes up your body, the whole you. And if your memories, etc. aren't floating around in some Cartesian substance, then they must be reflected in the makeup of your body, no matter how puzzling it is to neurologists.

Mr. Green said...

Daniel Smith: The gospels are replete with examples where demons "come out of" people. In fact Jesus used the term "house" as an analogy for the human body and demon possession

Yes, but not only is that figurative, it's describing something different from how a spirit manipulates someone, so I don't think we can conclude too much other than that those metaphors don't mix. I'm not aware of anything in Scripture that addresses the present metaphysical question one way or the other. The reason I think it's the general view for Scholastics is that I'm not sure how much different it could be (without going a Cartesian route or something), but maybe I might be wrong. Here's a link to someone commenting that Duns Scotus viewed possession like puppeteering.

James said...

“On an Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) hylemorphic view of human nature, when the body dies, the person dies. A-T regards the soul as the form of the living body, the principle which is responsible for all of its characteristic activities, from the lowest vegetative functions to the highest, intellectual ones. For a human being to die is just for the matter of his body to lose this form or soul. The soul carries on, but not as a complete substance, and thus not as the complete person.”

This is curious. If you’re operating with the theory of substance as laid out in Metaphysics Ζ, form just is substance, so there’s no question of forms (here, souls) as incomplete substances. If you’re operating with the theory of substance as laid out in the Categories, then (i) substantial particulars are not composites of not just of form and matter, but of properties too, and (ii) we also need an account of how the revised account of substance as form (as opposed to the composite particulars of the original account) differentiates them from universals. In other words, why are there no substantial genera or species given the forms of multiple particulars are identical? The answer cannot be that forms are simples in different composites (i.e. in different matter with different properties), because particularity is then a feature of the substance as per the Categories and the revised account of substances as forms remains susceptible to the same objection.

Syphax said...

Along the lines of this post, I am a newbie to A/T philosophy (and all philosophy, as I study psychology in grad school) but I have read three of Dr. Feser's books. I was wondering if one of you would comment on a recent summary I've written of how final causality relates to "interaction" in the brain on hylemorphic dualism? I would like to figure out how to model mental causation because of my graduate work (psychologists have to model mental processes on a regular basis, but so far materialist models fail to help me).

My recent post is here: http://arthurhatton.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/hylemorphic-dualism-and-free-will/

If I'm completely wrong and need to start again from the beginning, I am willing to accept that. I just need a tutor in such matters!

Daniel Smith said...

Mr. Green: Here's a link to someone commenting that Duns Scotus viewed possession like puppeteering.

None of that really explains how a demon controls a physical body. Is "permission" given somehow (by God, or by the person)? Does the demon only control the body or does it control the soul as well? From an A-T perspective it seems it must be both.

And lastly, does any of this relate to how the Holy Spirit dwells within us?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Green,

I don't see why. It doesn't take instructions as complex as Hamlet to find the book on a shelf at the library.

Let’s follow your analogy and see what would be involved in retrieving memory if it indeed were “stored in the brain” in the form of a distinct neuron firing pattern. If looking for a particular pattern “p0” is analogous to looking for Hamlet on a bookshelf then one need to first access a neuron pattern “p1” that represents the instruction of accessing the neuron pattern “p0” directly identified with the position of the book. Of course, you can’t find pattern “p1” without pattern “p2” pointing at “p1” pointing at “p0” – ad infinitum. In your model you need an infinite large storage of information in order to retrieve single information.

It may not even take any "stored" instructions at all — once you've found Macbeth, you can find Hamlet just by looking nearby. Indeed, we do sometimes "find" memories by remembering some other, related memory first.

But that is patently circular thinking. “You can find Hamlet by looking nearby Macbeth” sounds terribly simple, except that you need to remember to do so and, again, “store” that memory. Indeed, we do sometimes “find” related memories, except that that relation itself needs to be remembered. Can’t you see you are “explaining” memory by even more memory?

Technically, we might say a "memory" stored in your brain is just "data" until you actually bring it to your mind; but there's no reason that our past experiences cannot be stored physically in the brain as much as in a diary; your brain is just more convenient.

That is terribly vague. What do you mean by “bringing data from brain to mind”? How is that accomplished if the mind is immaterial and brain is material? Also, wouldn’t “mind” need a brain of its own to understand that data?

Software is formal, and software running on a machine determines its "shape" — if the matter … were arranged differently, you would have a different machine. (Though perhaps a very similar one, running a different program.) Obviously there are lots of differences too, but I only meant the relationship between form and matter.

The relation between form and matter is comparable to relation between software and machine?
I am sorry, but I really can’t make sense of the above paragraph and I am afraid neither would Aristotle.

You don't "store" software; you store things, which can be informed with different software patterns. In the analogy to a human being, your soul is not "stored" anywhere either; it, plus some matter, makes up your body, the whole you. And if your memories, etc. aren't floating around in some Cartesian substance, then they must be reflected in the makeup of your body, no matter how puzzling it is to neurologists.

If you store “things” for software to inform then you also need to store that software. So where do you do it? Neatly stashed next to “things”? Unless you mean that only “things” are stored, but not software.

And no,. “soul plus some matter doesn’t make up human body”. A human body that happens to be dead is not “soul plus some matter”. There is no “this plus that” relation involved here.

I don’t think there is a difference between thoughts and memories. Or rather, some thoughts are memory just like some thoughts are reflection, speculation etc. Thoughts are not stored anywhere so neither are the memories. But I, of course, agree with you that all our mental activity must find its expression in our body. But being expressed, or reflected is something completely different than being stored.

Otherwise, you did not explain where the data: memory, thoughts, or “things” are stored in persons who though born without brain have a normal intellectual and mental capacity.
T.H.

Gail Finke said...

James: I agree with you on Lovecraft, whom I loved in high school. But Gene Wolfe a better writer than Tolkien? The mind boggles.

Crude: Michael Flynn's "EIfelheim" deals with a lot of scientifc AND philosophical AND theological topics, extremely well. A space ship crashes in medieval Germany, what would they make of it? The main character, a priest highly educated in science and logic -- but also a true believer in Christ and his teachings about mercy --handles it quite well. Lots about how and if you could talk to aliens, lots about an alien, insectoid-culture vs. a human culture. Could they be saved? Would they be capable of self-giving love, and if so, what would it look like? Lots about the bubonic plague as well. Sadly, the novel has what I think is a disappointing end (the premise -- the reason a town was wiped off the map and all memory of it was erased just did not hold up for me) and it jumps back and forth beween the medieval story and a modern couple who, frankly, are not very interesting or likeable. But it's well-written, Fr. Deitrich is a great character, and there's a lot to think about.

Will said...

OK, here's the sci-fi episode I'd like to see Feserian commentary on. In "Tuvix" (Star Trek: Voyager), two individuals, Tuvok and Neelix, are fused by a transporter accident into one individual -- blended DNA, blended memories, blended everything. The characters kept speaking of the new "Tuvix" as a separate individual. Were they right? If the soul is the form of the body, would that mean that the immortal souls of Tuvok and Neelix were replaced by that of Tuvix, or did those souls exist (in death) alongside a new one?

Anonymous said...

I am hoping for a little help with a recent neuroscientific claim and its implications for the hylemorphic view of the soul.

http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/neuroscientist-says-human-head-transplants-are-now-possible/

VJ Torley addresses the implications of this for several versions of dualism, including a Thomistic account of the human soul. I was unsatisfied with Torley's hylemorphic response to the problem. It seems to be far more complicated than he allows (especially when we understand the human soul's specification as 'rational animality'). Could any Thomists address this issue for me? Thanks in anticipation.